This Week in Space: Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu

In case you’ve decided that this world no longer holds any charms for you, good news! This week’s space updates include a lot of promising research into getting you off this rock. Space ahead!

Things that go BOOM!

NASA’s Heliophysics program – which monitors the sun, get it? “Helio?” – has an amazing compilation of videos of what they call a “prominence,” or a blast of solar radiation. The videos compile several different distances, bands of energy and even two completely different sides of the same explosion.


Meanwhile, we have also recorded and are studying the largest star explosion ever recorded.

Come to the Off-World Colonies

The first and most basic problem we have as a species in visiting other worlds. Sure, provided that we stay within our own solar system, travel is not that far. Visiting any of Jupiter’s moons, for example. But if we’re to really break the bonds of our home system, it requires light speed travel.

New research puts light speed travel within at least hypothetical reach, though. Close enough in reach, in fact, that NASA actually has some basic testing in the works. The concept put forth decades ago as a “warp bubble,” which compresses space time ahead of it while expanding space-time behind it, might be possible for both sub- and superluminal (slower and faster than the speed of light, respectively) travel.

Now for the bad news: the nearest star and potentially-inhabitable exoplanet to the Earth is Alpha Centauri Bb at a whopping 4.25 lightyears away. So at light speed, assuming it can be achieved, we’re still looking at 51 months of crappy spaceline food and kids kicking the backs of our seats before we get to our destination.

As for our next stop, humanity’s original spacefarers have ideas of their own. Buzz Aldrin was quoted this week as saying that humanity’s future lies on the surface of Mars

Buzz Aldrin: Humanity’s Future Is on Mars:

Aldrin’s plan calls for NASA and the United States to focus technology development efforts for a manned Mars mission while still remaining a global leader in human spaceflight. The plan does not completely forgo a return of astronauts to the moon, but does state that NASA should not send astronauts there. Instead, his plan states, other countries like China, India and Russia can focus on exploration of the lunar surface while NASA fine-tunes the tech needed for Mars trips from stable Lagrange points near the moon.

Meanwhile, as the debate continues about the feasibility of travel both in and out of the Solar System, others continue to explore exoplanets in ways both innovative and old-school. One method for understanding the makeup of expolanets is to borrow slightly from the world of star analysis and use spectometry to see the signatures of elements. In this case, rather than putting the light of stars through a prism to determine the elements being burned off, the light of the stars as it passes through exoplanets as the occlude our view of the star is being analyzed for the same data about the possible atmospheres and planetary make up of our new long-distance BFFs.

Odds and Ends

If you’re looking for a way to contribute to deeper space exploration, why not try NASA’s call to search for “Space Warp” galaxies? No, these are not galaxies traveling at the speed of light. These are galaxies who by their nature create telephoto lenses into even deeper space. NASA hopes to be able to use these galaxies to peer deeper than ever before into the cosmos, and with much greater detail.

And finally, it turns out that the Milky Way’s own resident black hole has a surprising taste for gasses. Whereas scientists expected to find the crushed remnants of stars at the center of our galaxy – being dragged inevitably towards the deadly embrace of a super-massive black hole that keeps time in the Milky Way – they have instead discovered a collection of gasses equivalent to the size of our own Earth about to be gobbled up within the year.

That’s it for this week, space fans!

Science Space Porn

Voyager 1 enters a “Magnetic Highway” outside our solar system

Just when you thought Voyager 1 wouldn’t have anything new to report, instead, she finds herself in the midst of an interstellar commute.

The NASA JPL scientists working with the Voyager project report today that instead of finding a quiet space in between solar systems, Voyager 1 has discovered what they’re calling a “magnetic highway.” This magnetic highway is formed where the magnetic fields of the sun combine with magnetic fields of other stars.

The result is a connecting band where low-energy charged particles can travel between star systems – one set flows out of the Solar System, another travels into it. And the result for Voyager scientists is that they can “taste” the elements of other star systems by observing these particles:

“Although Voyager 1 still is inside the sun’s environment, we now can taste what it’s like on the outside because the particles are zipping in and out on this magnetic highway,” said Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We believe this is the last leg of our journey to interstellar space. Our best guess is it’s likely just a few months to a couple years away. The new region isn’t what we expected, but we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Voyager.”

Voyager is currently en route to interstellar space and outside of what is known as the “heliosphere,” the zone in space created by solar wind from our sun that creates a “bubble” around our system. Scientists still do not know how long it will be before Voyager 1 exists this sphere.


“One ton of American ingenuity” lands on Mars. (#MarsCuriosity roundup)

The excitement at Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars was felt well beyond Mission Control last night, as directors, White House officials and science geeks of all varieties took to Twitter and press releases to express their enthusiasm.

The gold star for American rah-rah goes to White House Science Advisor John Holdren, who put it this way:

“And if anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there is a one-ton automobile sized piece of American ingenuity that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now,”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went even further:

Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future. This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.

And Scientist and television personality Neil Degrasse-Tyson went with a more Trekkie take:

Given the hammering he’s taken on Fox News and elsewhere over his (entirely sane, well-supported) opinions on global climate change, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s take is even more amusing:

While the official Mars Curiosity Twitter feed asked us something bigger:

President Obama’s remarks on the touch down read in part:

Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination… I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.

Already, the mission is paying dividends, proving that the unique – read: right on the edge of wacky – design for the “Sky Crane” could do its job. By allowing the Rover to be set down in a precise location, the new lander paves the way for much more accurate landings and telemetry. The previous two landers were bounced across the surface of Mars in giant airbag cocoons.

Mission Control believes that the first real operations on the ground will take place sometime in September, after extensive diagnostics are performed. In the meanwhile, Curiosity stands at the foot of an enormous mountain in the middle of a crater the size of the San Fernando Valley, awaiting its next command.

Photo courtesy The Universe Facebook group.
Science VIDEO

Ride a rocket: from launch to landing on a sounding rocket.

NASA’s latest SDO (Solar Dynamics Observation) video is fun! While most of us have seen lots of Shuttle launches and even the occasional iPhone-equipped weather balloon launch, its somewhat rare to see the first-person launch of a more conventional rocket. This one appears to be just about man-sized, based on the end of the video where one of the operators retrieves the rocket from its landing position among what looks like saw grass.

Unlike the relatively straight-forward flight pattern of the shuttle or other manned space craft, for a small rocket, the ability to spin on launch helps it maintain a straight flight path, in the same way that rifled bullets fly straighter, farther than non-rifled bullets. The graph at the side of the video does a good job of explaining where in the launch the rocket is as it goes, and as always, the view of the Earth below is just intoxicating:

Space Porn

Gemini Dream: researchers piece together missing images from the Gemini space missions

As Smithsonian’s Air and Space website declares it – probably correctly – Gemini was the “middle child” of the 60’s space race. It’s the one most people are less clear about. But many of the advances in technology that led to the eventual moon mission happened on the Gemini missions.

Now researchers at Arizona State University have teamed up with @NASA to give us all a glimpse of what life on those missions was really like, by digitizing and cleaning up some of the lost photos. The images are as beautiful for their naked imperfections as they are for the moments in history they bring us closer to:

Ghosts of Gemini | Photos | Air & Space Magazine.

Science Space Porn

[VIDEO] New analysis by Cassini scientists reveals amazing dynamism in Saturn’s F-ring

There seems no limit to the things Cassini reveals about our mysterious outer neighbors in the Solar System…

After analyzing the paths of Saturn’s moons, scientists discovered the origins of some of the strange trails they’d previously noticed perforating the rings, specifically the F-ring. It turns out that the moon itself passes through this ring and in so doing, picks up the ice and dust particles that make the ring what it is and carries them along in its wake. Presto! Instant “mini-jet,” as science has known them for some time.

And it turns out that these trails are not just created by moons like Prometheus. Some objects as small as a kilometer wide do the same thing. Check out the last image, which removes Saturn from the shot and emphasizes the F-ring mini-jets. Amazing stuff!

Unfortunately, I cannot embed the video. But I can send you along to the link, so off you go.

Science Space Porn

@NASA finds its first Goldilocks. Is there life out there?

The Goldilocks Zone: like its namesake, this term defines a place which is neither too hot nor too cold. In this case, it is an orbital distance from a star which is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. And science is looking for planets in the Goldilocks Zone because they represent the best chance we have of discovering life on other planets as we understand it.

NASA has announced today that they have discovered the first genuine candidate for Goldilocks honors, in addition to doubling the list of planets we’ve discovered in the universe. They also say there are ten more candidates for the Goldilocks crown.

Are planets in the Goldilocks zone the only ones with potential for life to exist? Perhaps not. Science’s definition of life and its habitats changes all the time. But science works best under controlled circumstances, and with over 1000 planets having been discovered, simply picking one out of a crowd to start searching is no way to go about things. Discovering other planets that share as much as possible in common with our own – the only planet we can say definitively has life on it – increases our odds of success.

In this case, the planet is named – after the sexy fashion of @NASA – Kepler 22-b. This planet is 600 light-years away, is 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbits in a 290-day route. Its sun is in the same G-class of stars as our own, though it is slightly smaller and cooler. But the major common trait is that its in the right orbit to sustain liquid water.

Will there be life on this Kepler 22-b? How would we even go about proving that, one way or another, at such a distance? Only time will tell if our first Goldilocks lives up to its potential, or even exceeds expectations.

For more information on the discovery and announcement, have a look at the press release from NASA below:

NASA – NASAs Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone of Sun-Like Star.


NASA schedules unmanned test flight for Orion spacecraft for 2014

I would resist the temptation to hold your breath for this one. Still, its good to see plans being made for new American spacecraft and interesting to see the new technology they’re working on.

NASA’s press release says they’re working on both spacecraft and reentry technology for longer space travel missions. Reentry is particularly critical, as deep space exploration vehicles will likely be entering Earth’s atmosphere at significantly higher rates of speed, thus requiring better heat shielding. The presser says they’re looking to test reentry speeds in excess of 20,000 MPH.

The current scheduled test is for the Lockheed-Martin Orion spacecraft pictured above. However, a competitive bidding process is underway as well. For more details, see the full text of the press release below:

via NASA – NASA Proposes Orion Spacecraft Test Flight In 2014.

Science Space Porn

We are stardust: #RIT boffins discover evidence of organic compounds in interstellar space

There are stars and comets and asteroids and matter formed into all manner of shape and size in the universe; there are black holes and red dwarves; there are nebulae and clusters. Galaxies are made up of these things, plus clouds of dust and ice. Our little planet exists on the lonely edge of one of these, the Milky Way. But beyond our galaxy and in between all that stuff, it is generally understood, are unknowably vast stretches of nothing. A vacuum, perforated by radiation from stars, that is otherwise empty.

But perhaps not.

Professor Donald Figer and a team of scientists at RIT have discovered evidence that maybe that interstellar space isn’t quite as empty as we thought. They have picked up on data suggesting that floating within that nothingness may be the very same organic chemicals that formed life on Earth. Dr. Figer wasn’t looking for anything of the sort. In fact, he was readying research for a soon-to-be-published paper on his field of study, super-massive stars, when he happened upon an irritating irregularity in his data that turned out to be this rather amazing discovery.

A spectrum band of white light.

The story of this discovery is all about a research method known as spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is the process of bending light through a prismatic system to get the classic rainbow effect you see when viewing light through any prism. Scientists measure the intensity and width of the bands to determine the chemical makeup of the star whose light they are studying.

Spectrum showing absorption lines

However, between the star and our own planet, there may be matter that absorbs some of the star’s light. When this happens, black bands appear in the spectroscopy where a specific element has absorbed a specific frequency of light. These are known as Absorption Lines. The process of identifying which element is causing which absorption line to appear is based on some of your old Chemistry class math: the amount of energy required to make an electron of a given atom jump to various excited states.

The crazy thing is: while science has positively identified hundreds of elements in absorption lines, many lines are unaccounted for. To further complicate the picture, molecules (which may have multiple elements) appear as what you might call “tone clouds” of several absorption lines, close together.

Back to Professor Figer’s research, in studying super massive stars, the assumption was that they would not be getting any absorption lines at all, since they didn’t anticipate any matter between the stars and the sensors. Again: interstellar space should be empty. And since the light from super massive stars tends to be reliably balanced white light, they expected to find perfectly even spectra. As you no doubt have guessed by now, that was not the case.

Instead, team member Tom Geballe found those tightly-packed absorption lines, 500 in all, occluding not one but every single observation of every star they looked at. Consistency is evidence in science, and this particular evidence pointed to one conclusion: whatever was causing the absorption lines must be present in interstellar space, not simply around one or two stars.

And based on the above-mentioned math, Professor Figer and his team have determined that the “whatever” in question is likely to be organic material, once thought to be fairly rare in the universe and definitely central to our understanding of life.

Is this organic material RNA? Is it the seed from which the Panspermia theory says we all evolved? Well, that’s a lot of “maybe’s” that Professor Figer isn’t speculating on. But certainly, his discovery points to organic compounds being even more ubiquitous in the universe than first thought. Rather than simply appearing as specks of simple amino acids and peptides on meteor fragments, this evidence points to a universe shot through with the stuff of life. A cloud of potential, from which any number of colonies of life might suddenly be formed in almost any corner of the universe.

Ed Note: This article was checked for accuracy by Professor Figer and some small changes made to reflect that accuracy.


NASA Research Shows DNA Can Be Built in Space

Adherents to one of the more exotic (literally) theories on the origins of life has just gotten a boost of confidence, based on the latest @NASA research:

NASA – NASA Research Shows DNA Building Blocks Can Be Made in Space.

Scientists have detected the building blocks of DNA in meteorites since the 1960s, but were unsure whether they were created in space or resulted from contamination by terrestrial life. The latest research indicates certain nucleobases — the building blocks of our genetic material — reach the Earth on meteorites in greater diversity and quantity than previously thought.

The theory that life was “seeded” onto the Earth from meteorites crashing onto its surface is called Panspermia. Like the article notes, this theory has been in circulation and widely supported since the 60’s when the discovery of DNA building blocks was first made.

But the theory of Panspermia has always been hampered by the prospect of contamination: since the meteorites we observe are already on the planet, the chemicals that spark the debate might just have seeped into the rock once the meteorite was on Earth. These rocks are not, after all, recent visitors.

The current research was conducted on meteorite fragments found in the Antarctic. The scientists found that many different molecules, very similar to DNA’s base, are present in the rock. Despite the similarity, not all the chemicals found in the meteorites are commonly employed in biology.

But significantly, the ice surrounding the meteorite did not have the same chemicals present. That suggests that the meteorite in question was forming new chemicals prior to its arrival, rather than simply holding onto debris from its new home.

Economy Politics Science

Going to the Moon is Reasserting Our Leadership?!?

Don’t get me wrong: I think the idea of setting up permanent habitations in space is, in the words of Kenny Powers, “Cool as fuck.” But seriously, the Republican Congressman who penned this new bill running through Congress called it “the Reasserting American Leadership in Space Act,” and calls it REAL.

New Bill Directs NASA Back to the Moon By 2022, With Permanent Habitation In Mind | Popular Science.

Casting aside the fact that there’s no E in the above “anagram,” which should fairly be called RALS, how is going to the moon any way to “reassert” our leadership in space? A better bet would be to actually live up to our commitments to the International Space Station and concentrate on the long-term viability of a habitation on Mars or its moon, Deimos.

I would say that, based on the list of Congress-critters who’ve signed on to the bill, what this bill should probably be called is “The Reasserting the South’s Dependence on the Wasteful Space Program They So Revile Till They Lose Their Shit Act” (RSDWSPTSRTTLTS).

Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, now does it?


Space: Maybe Not, Indeed

Christian Science Monitor has an article up on their online edition featuring the top nine priorities for planetary exploration as expressed by the National Research Council. Perhaps the National Research Council should have cross-checked with the bean counters at NASA before they went to press with this info, as the top priority of a joint EU/US mission to Mars is already in jeopardy.

Europa or bust? Maybe not. Top 9 priorities for planetary research missions – Mars Astrobiology Explorer–Cacher: MAX-C –